The One that Got Away

I know where I am, but I am not sure how I got here.

I am about a half-mile south of Mitchell Dam in Coosa County.  The bridge on Alabama 22 is half again as far away.  Nothing much on that highway but trees on either side.  Forests that would swallow it without a trace in a few years without human intervention.   You break down anywhere on that stretch between Rockford and Verbena and you better pray that you can flag down the occasional log truck, because your cell phone won’t have enough signal to be tracked by the government, let alone make a call.  But I can say that about most of Coosa County.  It is a good place for a person to simply disappear.  Many have.

I have stood on this spot before.  A narrow strip of Bermuda that is outrageously out of place, a little patch of grass that mimics a manicured subdivision lawn.  It is at the river’s edge.  A cabin is perched on the hillside up-slope.  The riverbank on this side of the Coosa is steep but gradual, and a few other cabins squat along the bank back toward the highway.  The one behind me was once a mobile home, but a skillful carpenter framed it in so that it looks like a cabin.  I know this because I tried to sell it for a man once, long ago.  An over-priced cabin with a secret.

The other side of the river is wild and beautiful.  A shear bluff 500 feet down to the waterline.  Limestone outcrops punctuate gnarled and stunted oaks and hickories, their branches heavy with Spanish moss that seems oddly out of place this far from the coast.

The current is swift here. Deceptively so.  The surface is gunmetal gray, but the roiling murky brown water hidden underneath swirls to the surface and then submerges again.

I watch this silently.  Try to read the river like an old manuscript.  In my mind’s eye I can see the Coosa when it ran wild before the dam.  Back when hundred-year floods sent sharecropper’s houses, barns, and livestock rolling past this spot toward the Gulf.

There are fish in this river.  Big fish.  Old men who sit out front of Kelly’s Crossroads store talk about catfish as big as Buicks below the dam, hovering silently in the murky depths.  Big blind yellow-cats that patrol the bottom at depths where no sunlight has ever penetrated.  Some will swear on a stack of Bibles that Alabama Power can’t hire divers to inspect the dam below the surface, because they know what’s down there.  They have heard the old stories of men who went down and never came back up.  About the one who made it back to the surface but spent the rest of his years wide-eyed and silent in a padded room up at the nervous hospital in Tuscaloosa. 

I suddenly realize that I am not alone.  I am standing next to a stranger.  He is casting into the depths with heavy tackle, long stout rod and spinning reel with 100-pound test line, the kind of rig you would see on a charter boat in the Gulf, or fishing for marlin in the Keys.

I watch him silently.  He casts upstream and lets the line run by with the current.  He doesn’t look at me.

“They’re running” he says.

I don’t recognize his accent, but it’s not one from around here.  His weathered face is partially hidden under a faded black Harley Davidson baseball cap.  A skull patch with “Live to Ride – Ride to Live” on the front.  Shirt sleeves rolled up above the elbows exposing tattoos of dark angels in hellish landscapes. 

“You ride?” I ask.  I’m looking for common ground.  “Maybe we can hook-up and ride to…”

He waves me off mid-sentence.

“Today we fish” he says.

In an instant I see something roll up through the surface.  Something big.  Great White shark big.  Flash of white belly in the twilight, the size and color of a beech log.  It is gone in the blink of an eye, slipping back silently below the current.

I wonder if he too saw, but he has turned away from me.  “Pick up that rig and cast upstream.  Let it float with the current.  Let her take it and run, then snatch that pole back with both hands to set the hook.  You best be ready when she hits it.”

I do as he says.  I see the bait plop through the surface and disappear.  I watch the line as it moves with the current and passes where I stand on the bank.  His line is still in the water, but he’s no longer watching it.  His is gaze has turned to me.

I feel the line tug.  Watch all the slack vanish and see the rod tip snap downward.

“Steady… steady… now. Snatch it!”

I feel every muscle in my body tense as I jerk the rod backwards with both hands.  The pull on the line is immovable.  I have hooked something so big that it is pulling me toward the murky water as it moves downstream.  In a millisecond I realize that I am the one who is hooked.  I am the one who is being played.  I am caught.  My mind screams “let go, let go,” but I cannot.

I turn to the man for help, but he is gone.  His voice is a whisper in my ear.  “You want to ride, son?  Let’s ride.  Now taste and see that the Lord is good.”

I begin to scream.

And then I wake up.

Needful Things

dry garden

Steps slow and measured.  Bare feet in the furrow, wisps of chalky dust trailing.  Tomorrow’s dew will settle the powder, but only until the sun peels the ridgetop. Until then a visage of singular puffs, the prints fossilized afarensis along some ancient Saharan riverbed.

The rows 36 apart, predestined and foreordained by the plow.  The seed carefully placed one to a finger-shaped hole. One to two inches deep, three to six between.  Covered by a little pat, the tenderness almost sentimental, usually reserved for the head of a good dog or a beloved grandchild.

Heart of a poet, not a farmer.

Daybreak after planting, the sky cracked-open.  Four inches in a matter of a few hours.  I stood in the midst and watched, a visage of some forlorn and demented scarecrow in a sea of swirling black feathers.  Sweat-soaked in the eve, rain-soaked in the morn.

The rows held fast, anchored to the earth by some unseen force.  Perhaps or perchance through a shaman’s trance, lips moving inaudible prayers or curses into a turbulent sky.

A week passed.  Two weeks.  Now three.

The sky sealed by a celestial signet.  Heat building each day, stacked like strata viewed bottom-up.

Such tender shoots.  Promises of ears, pods, and succulents.  Colors not green but off-green, wilting and folding inward like ancient scrolls exposed after centuries of desiccation.

Tomorrow dawn I stretch the hose.  Waters of survival only, creating a mirage of an oasis.  Temporal relief.  Water from pipes stave-off, but they do not nourish.  Treated is for human, rain for plants.

Sunday morning shower, rinse, repeat.

Odds makers book Monday at six in ten, but never wager against the home team, especially in Alabama.

I look heavenward and wait, my nursery of babes waiting to be suckled.

Howl

Clear skies and cold.  The moon 75 percent waxing gibbous.  Her zenith around 8:00 p.m.  Tonight he will be back, down in the bottom field, just 100 yards below the house.

The song begins with a few sharp barks, then a crescendo into a long, mournful soprano.  It will be answered from down in the swamp bottom first, then from another pack two ridges over, a double-chorus of Banshees, each with no individually distinguishable voice.  They could be 50 or even a 100, a ruckus that almost make a man feel surrounded in some Jack London tale.  Stoke-up the fire as the circle tightens.

My pit will lift his head, awakened from whatever canine dreams be on a winter night.  His growl low and deep, as if it originates somewhere around his back haunches.  Each lasts about ten seconds, followed by a single syllable “umph.”  A ridge of hair stands like a white belt from skull to tail, a sign that he is approaching the red line, where some other creature has produced in him a rage that will lead to fury.

I say “hush, now,” but he will not be quieted until the lone singer and his cacophony of answering choirs have ceased.  I need only open the door and he will charge off into the night.

I wonder, not being well-versed in coyote song.  Is he calling out of loneliness, or simply trying to locate the others, to gauge their distance?  A measuring of reasonable trot should he be so inclined to rejoin the evening rituals of the pack.

I like to think that it is a voluntary solitude.  Chosen, not forced.  Still a path back.  But I don’t know the ways of coyotes.

Sunday past I found a single arrowhead on a low, flat ridge above the creek bottom.  The first in twenty-five years of walking this land.  The parent rock just beside, cleft clearly visible where two pieces once fit together.  I looked again, for where there is one there are usually more, indicating a camp, even a temporary village.  But there were no more.  A single piece of flint shaped by a solitary man.

This lack of relics is curious.  I stand five miles as the crow flies from the last stand of the Creek Nation, fought to the last man, woman and child in the shallow bend of a river.  Stone points and wooden shafts no match for Andrew Jackson’s band of muskets.

Again I wonder.  Was the point-maker in voluntary solitude?  Still close enough to coyote-call over the low ridges.  Far enough to escape the evening banter.

Perhaps kindred spirits, man and coyote.  Seeking solitude, but always curious if others are still within range.

Maybe only on this patch of sacred land.  Solitude calls to solitude.

The sun is setting.  I have cornbread in the oven, Hoppin’ John in the pot.  I build my  evening fire against the chill.

Bully and I await the moon.  The evening performance will begin soon.

Tonight we howl.

 

Meribah*

lightning-3

 

I walk the ridge line, following the well-worn trail past 300-year-old longleaf pines that stand like sentinels before the passage of time.  Other time-worn sojourners are here too:  gnarled black-jack oaks, mountain white oak.  Even the carpet of huckleberry where the sunlight filters through the canopy seem old.  Much older than I am.  Much older than I will ever be.

The tallest of the longleaf has been struck by lightning.  I see the long scar, bark peeled in a smooth strip from the topmost branch down to the ground. The wound is old, but a wound none-the-less, a visible indicator that a jagged bolt can descend from an angry sky and change everything in an instant.  The plight of the tree reminds me that standing tall and proud is not always the best option, for trees or people.

A ground-fire blazed up from the lightning strike.  A momentary conflagration in the great cycle of nature’s binge and purge.  Brief, yes, but intense.  The smaller trees, stunted dogwood and scrub persimmon were scorched before the rain followed the lightning spark and doused the flames.  Such is the nature of summer storms.  Not always the tallest and strongest take the hit and suffer.  Sometimes innocent bystanders have the worse fate.

I pick up a strip of the thin peeled bark and put it in my pocket.  It is a talisman of a sort, a reminder that other bolts will drop from these same heavens, sometimes even before a whisper of a breeze indicates that a storm is on the horizon.  We are not protected from jagged, loose electricity without a wire, high voltage descending through the quiet stillness of heavy air.  Such acts are not random, though they may appear so.  They are predestined, preordained before the beginning of time.  No other way that they could be.  Like the trail worn by the passage of feet and hooves for ages and ages that I walk on this Fall day.  No other place this trail could be.  No other time that it could be walked by me in this way in or this moment.

I cross a ledge where the trail narrows in the ridge line.  It is a thin, rocky place between the broad flat of the hilltops before and behind me.  I imagine from the air above it looks as if God pinched this spot while the bedrock was cooling, like a woman works the edges of a pie crust out of soft white dough.  The soil is eroded and thin.  Nothing grows here for lack of an anchor-hold. I mind my feet on the exposed granite.  This is where the timber-rattler comes to warm on the first few cool days of Fall.

The ledge safely crossed, I follow the trail a few hundred yards until the ridge flattens wide again.  Another trail, faint but still discernible, angles toward the side slope.  A fox squirrel chatters a warning as I step onto this path to make my descent.  Whether this warning is for me or for other squirrels, I cannot know.  Only time and the descent will tell.

I only know that I am headed down, but I have known that in my heart for some time now.  I will go down the steep side-slope to the broad level land in the hollow below.  A creek flows there, although I cannot see it or hear its music yet.

A little spot near that creek is my destination.

 

*Author’s note:  Occasionally I like to write short fiction.  I wrote this short story in 2013, so I expect that not many of you have read it.  It is rather long for a blog format, so I will be publishing it here as it was originally presented, as a “serial.”  This is good and bad.  Good in that you will probably read it if I keep the word-count down so as to keep your attention.  Bad if you somehow read the next installment without understanding that something came before it.

Funeral for A Friend

smooth stones

The Irish call it a wake.  People in Alabama call it visitation.

It is a ceremony for the living, held in the presence of the dead.  A family stands like deer in the headlights as others shuffle by, hands extended, hugs offered.  A surreal numbness.  Asleep and awake.  Time pauses, hesitates, hovers like a feather on an imperceptible breeze.

It is early and the line is long.  I expected that.  He was well-known and well-liked.  I take my place behind a friend, a friend of this friend.  We swap stories between starts and stops.  Stories are the life, after all.  Tales true and untrue, embellished or plumbed on the mark.  They keep the memory for as long as they are told.  Longer if someone takes the time to write them down.  A life is brief.  Words are the substance of eternity.

I turn over the words in my mind as we approach.  Lift them like smooth stones from the creek bottom.  Feel their heft.  Discard some.  Put a few good ones in my pocket.  Keep one or two of the very best in my hand.

First, the wife.  A natural Southern beauty who has lost a partner she has loved since high school.  Built a business.  Raised a family.  Maintained a quiet gracefulness throughout all these last months-weeks-days-hours-minutes-seconds.  She thanks me for coming.  Her eyes radiate weariness in waves like heat from Alabama asphalt in August.

“I’m very sorry,” I say.

The son is a big strapping guy, broad-shouldered and handsome.  Strong handshake,  pretty wife.  Recently passed the Bar.  The future will be much brighter than the present.

“I’m sorry about your dad,” I say.

Then momma.  I have met her on a few occasions, but I don’t recall ever having a direct conversation with her.

I am not prepared for momma.

“Ma’am I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m –”

She stops me cold.  “Of course I remember you.”

And then a remarkable thing.  This sweet little lady I hardly know puts her arms around me and lays her head on my shoulder.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  I told him, ‘you can’t go before me.’  It’s not right.  It’s not supposed to be this way.”

What does a man say to such as this?

Should I quote some cherry-picked Bible verse suitable for the occasion?  “Let not your heart be troubled…”

Perhaps a platitude.  “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” or “God must still have something important for you to do.”

Maybe something just downright stupid, like “I know how you feel.”

I am at a loss.  A man who places such value in words is without a good one.  Hands empty, pockets turned-out.

“Yessum,” I say.

It’s the best I can do in the moment.  It’s the best I can do now.